For the second time this year, satellite photos and social media imagery reveal that thousands of Russian troops and hundreds of armored vehicles and artillery systems are deploying far away from their usual bases to positions adjacent to the border with Ukraine. Or rather, a substantial proportion of the units that massed their last Spring and participated in a huge military exercise in September never really went back.
These troop shifts were deemed sufficiently worrisome that on October 30 CIA director Bill Burns traveled to Moscow to discuss Washington’s awareness of and concerns regarding the troop movements, which a Pentagon spokesman characterized as being of “unusual […] scale.” Yet Ukraine’s own Ministry of Defense claimed Nov. 1 it had “not recorded” any military buildup.
I consulted two experts on the Russian military seeking to answer the following question: just how likely do the troop movements suggest a new Russian military operation in Ukraine?
Armies Far From Home
Earlier in March and April, Russia massed forces near Ukraine, particularly at Pogonovo, though in a much more public fashion. Ultimately, however, these moves appeared to have been intended as a demonstration of force to deter Ukrainian operations and pressure President Joe Biden into meeting with his counterpart Vladimir Putin.
Then in September, additional forces drawn from distant military districts participated in the huge but expected Zapad 2021 military exercise in the Western Military District simulating a conflict against a NATO intervention force in Belarus.
Here’s what’s setting off alarm bells now, though: several large units redeployed for Zapad 2021 and the Spring military buildup are remaining in areas adjacent to Ukraine rather than returning to their regular bases. Furthermore, satellite and social media imagery suggest additional combat elements from outside the region are quietly shifting to the border area.
The movements of the 41st Combined Arms Army (CAA), ordinarily headquartered at Novosibirsk in Siberia, have attracted particular concern. Initially many of its subunits deployed to Pogonovo, near Voronezh, during the Spring buildup. But rather than returning home after Zapad, those units shifted westward to Yelniya, which is just as close to Ukrainian soil, but adjacent to the Kyiv region rather than Eastern Ukraine.
Analysis of satellite photos shows hundreds of parked tanks and BMP infantry fighting vehicles implying at least 3-5 Battalion Tactical Groups drawn from at least two of the 41st CAA’s three Motor Rifle Brigades (the 74th and 35th Guards) as well as heavy fire support units from the 119th Rocket and 120th Artillery Brigades: a battalion each of Iskander ballistic/cruise missile launchers, 2S19 self-propelled howitzers, and BM-21 rocket artillery, as well as a company of “flame-throwing” TOS-1A thermobaric rocket launchers.
The imagery also shows that the 41st CAA is maintaining a separate base there rather than melding with the regular garrison from the 20th Combined Arms Army.
Furthermore, elements of the elite 1st Guards Tank Army based around Moscow—either the 4th Tank Division or 2nd ‘Taman’ Guards Rifle Division—including T-80 tanks, have been observed moving towards Ukraine. Indeed, the Russian military claims 25 sub-units of the 1st GTA are performing exercises in the district through November.
Meanwhile, heavy artillery and missile units of the 58th Combined Arms Army—ordinarily based in Chechnya and South Ossetia, but which deployed to Crimea for the Zapad exercise—remain there still.
A final puzzle piece is increasingly bellicose rhetoric from Putin, seemingly driven by fears that NATO is cooperating more closely with Ukraine, ostensibly presaging a move to induct Ukraine into the defensive alliance as a member state.
For example, Putin stated in a speech in July “…we will never allow our historical territories and people close to us living there to be used against Russia. And to those who will undertake such an attempt, I would like to say that this way they will destroy their own country.”
Michael Kofman, director of Russia studies at the Center for Naval Analysis, wrote to me that speech and other rhetoric indicate a lower threshold for Russian intervention in Ukraine than prior. That could mean Putin is laying down the political/rhetorical groundwork justifying future military operations.
Reading the Tea Leaves
While State Department sources quoted by CNN characterized the redeployment as a “massive buildup” 41st CAA has just three maneuver brigades, making it closer in size to a division. That didn’t strike me as a large enough formation for a major invasion.
Military analyst Konrad Muzyka of Rochan Consulting wrote to me in an email “When talking about the 41st CAA I am talking about elements of it, not the entire army…Is this a lot? In itself, it isn’t, but they could always be used to augment units already stationed in the area.”
Kofman similarly argued that the 41st CAA’s footprint—alongside elements of the 1st Guard Tank Army and 58th CAA—had to be considered as reinforcing the already substantial Russian forces already deployed to the Ukraine border area.
Those units include the 20th and 8th Combined Arms Armies deployed on the northern and southeastern border with Ukraine respectively, each counting two Motor Rifle Divisions and associated missile and artillery brigades; and the 22nd Army Corps based in Crimea, including the mechanized 126th Coastal Defense Brigade.
Muzyka nonetheless believes the troop deployments aren’t aimed at Ukraine, but rather at reinforcing Russia’s northwestern flank, with the 41st CAA possibly filling a gap on the borders of Latvia and northern Belarus. However, he added, “I must also admit, I am growing increasingly uneasy with the current situation.”
Kofman commented on social media “The military activity is out of cycle. These are not routine drills, certification checks, and one would struggle to come up with innocuous explanations for what is being observed… This activity is not particularly public, or paired with coercive statements, compared to what took place in February-April earlier this year. It does appear that the Russian military has been ordered to position itself for a possible operation in the coming months.”
He subsequently clarified “…this is not a situation likely to unfold in the coming days or weeks. I would look to the winter, maybe after the holidays. Either way, I doubt a political decision has yet been made.”
Muzyka also cautioned that after some troops' movements were recorded and posted on social media, the Russian military appears to have improved operational security by undertaking movements at night—meaning some movements may be going undetected.
Weaponized Migrants on a Cold Border
The troop movements on Russia’s borders are occurring at the same time as tensions heighten between Belarus and Poland—with deadly consequences. These confrontations may be unrelated to the troop movements around Ukraine—Muzyka did not think they were—but regardless represent additional dry kindling in a tense security environment.
Warsaw has extended asylum and support to dissidents in Belarus who have opposed the fraudulent electoral victory of Belarus’s longtime dictator Alexander Lukashenko. In apparent retaliation, Belarussian border forces have released at least two thousand migrants from Africa, the Middle East, and Afghanistan at the Polish border—a provocation aimed at the sitting Polish government’s virulently anti-migrant policies. The ‘migrant dumping’ is on such a scale it can actually be seen in satellite photos.
Warsaw already has erected a border fence it plans to expand into a wall and mobilized thousands of border troops to intercept the migrants—who mostly seek transit to Germany—and send them back into Belarus, refusing applications for asylum.
Belarussian border guards also have been recorded forcing migrants to cross into Poland against their will and recorded firing shots into the air, allegedly to chase back migrants attempting to reenter Belarus. So far eight migrants have died from exposure in the cold border area.
Armed Belarussian troops also crossed over into Polish soil allegedly on a reconnaissance mission before being confronted by Polish border guards.
Polish defense commentator Krzysztof Kuska wrote to me that he felt that Belarus’s tactics sought to exploit left/right political divisions in Poland, perhaps in a manner similar to Russia’s production of both right- and left-wing propaganda aimed at inflaming domestic tensions in the United States. Of the tense confrontations at the border, Kuska added “One mistake on the trigger and it will be a nightmare.”
Sébastien Roblin holds a Master’s Degree in Conflict Resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring.